When Jewish Play is More Than Just Fun 1

David Bryfman

Zechariah the prophet writes about peace and prosperity coming to Zion.

Thus says the Lord: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. (Zechariah 8:4–5)

Allow me to humbly suggest that Zechariah almost got it right. True redemption will only come when old men and old women, together with boys and girls are playing in the streets of Jerusalem.

One of the things that the Jewish world needs most now is to embrace play. Why? Because play works.

Buying the argument that the Jewish community needs to play more requires us to move beyond the notion that play equates to simply having fun. Play is more than a theory by (Jewish) developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky who thought of it as a leading source of human development. And play is certainly more than a series of developmental stages that only children go through[1].

As the title of his book suggests, “Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul,” Stuart Brown and his colleagues at the National Institute of Play, have advanced the theory of play to well beyond the childhood years and described it as a central attribute of human beings.

Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories are moments of play? (Brown, S., p.5)

So what is it about play that works and why is it a commodity so needed by the Jewish people today?

On February 12, 2008, The New York Times magazine cover read “Why Do We Play,” the article by science author Robin Martantz Henig highlighted many critical aspects of why play should be taken seriously. Scientists deeply engaged in the study of play, speak of it as being, “ a central part of neurological growth and development — one important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains,” as fundamental to the human condition as any other aspect of their development.

Even though many of us would agree with the broad concept of play being important it is often astonishing how many of our Jewish learning environments do not embrace play. Too concerned about getting through the curriculum, teaching the aleph-bet, or preparing for the Bar/Bat mitzvah we often forget that at the end of the day our children are far more important than any piece of knowledge that we might value. When play, rather than content, becomes the motivating force in any learning setting, the whole-child becomes the focus of our attention. When play becomes the dominant pedagogy our children smile and have fun and when this occurs not only are we contributing to their overall development, but they are also more open to learning and experiencing the beauty of what Jewish life has to offer.

Play comes in many forms. Role playing, simulation activities and games with rules are just some examples of play that might be familiar to us. Increasingly we have seen the inclusion of digital games in learning environments. There are many different ways that play can take place but at its core it is almost always an intrinsically motivate activity associated with pleasure and enjoyment.

But play is not just for children. In fact as a single commodity it might be what Jewish adults need more than anything else right now.

1. The Imagination of Play: In a world where there is rarely a one-size-fits-all way of doing things, play enables us to imagine all of life’s possibilities. Play enables people to wonder and to discover for themselves. But play is not simply closing one’s eyes and dreaming. Play has a framework, and often rules that guide its conduct. As psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes, people are best able to learn when they can achieve a state of “flow” that stretches someone, but pleasurably so, and not beyond their capacity. Good play allows people to take risks and stretch their boundaries, and so too should Jewish life encourages individuals and communities to explore and find meaning within their broadest possible perimeters.

2. The opposite of play is not work: Abraham Maslow suggests that, “almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” Play is not a waste of time and when done well is an endless source of productivity and fulfillment. As Stuart Brown claims, “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” There are many reasons why people work ranging from a love of the job, to achieving status, to paying the bills. But unlike work, Jewish life can only thrive if it is something that we want to be a part of. Adopting a playful approach rather than a laborious one will allow the creativity that is necessary for an evolving Jewish people to adapt and transform in these rapidly changing times.

3. Jewish Life and Living should be Fun: Jewish learning and life often gets a bad rap. Many of us have images of strict regimes forcing something Jewish down our collective throats. But it doesn’t have to be that way; and the truth is as better rabbis and educators fill the Jewish world today, it is increasingly not. People world over have begun to realize that a life infused with values and tradition, that has more meaning because it is infused with a deeper commitment than merely the aesthetic, is qualitatively more enjoyable than a life that lacks this extra layer of meaning. Studies about happiness abound indicating that people are happy when they are in relationships – and at its core Jewish life must be about relationships that bring this joy. Engaging and enjoying playing with peers and colleagues builds and strengthens relationships, and ultimately leads to them leading happier lives.

So take a moment out of your busy over-scheduled day and have a playful moment Engage your colleagues, your students or your family. Be playful with your life and your Jewish experiences. Imagine what the world would look like if everybody managed to play for even just a few minutes each day.

Brown, Stuart, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Avery (a member of Penguin Group), New York, 2009.

Stuart Brown says play is more than fun http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html

Shahar, Tal, Edutaining the World
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSREpjLyvUA

David Bryfman is the director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership and Teen Engagement.


[1] In the 1920s Mildred Parten categorized the play of children into six developmental stages (Unoccupied play, Solitary play, Onlooker (Spectator) play, Parallel play, Associative play, Cooperative play).

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